During his first day on the job this week, Illinois State University's new athletic director helped direct a major fundraising pitch to the town of Normal. Larry Lyons talks about taking the reigns of ISU's athletic department with WGLT's Willis Kern.
WILLIS KERN: On Monday, Lyons and others from Illinois State appeared before the Normal Town Council asking for a half million dollars to cover nearly half the cost of new scoreboards and message center outside the renovated Hancock Stadium. Mayor of Normal Chris Koos says he wants a few weeks to let the idea gel with council members. Lyons says he thinks it was well-received.
LARRY LYONS: I think they see the benefits the community's going to receive from the new football stadium, particularly access to the club area primarily. That particular asset in the facility we see as a very good community asset, probably used more by the campus and the community than by us as an athletic department because of the uniqueness of the facility. So I think they were receptive from that respect.
WK: What if they were to deny it or substantially decrease the amount that they're going to contribute? Would that alter in some way what you're going to have outside Hancock Stadium?
LYONS: I don't think that would alter or change. We're just in the process of putting the plans together. We've asked the Town of Normal to participate, then we'll have to come back to the campus and present the proposal to the campus for approval.
WK: September 21, I know that's a day you have circled in red ink on your calendar. That's the football Redbirds' home opener. How are the renovations going at Hancock Stadium? How's it all progressing? Is it going to be ready by September 21?
LYONS: There's an outside chance that they'll have it finished, but we need to be a little bit realistic given the winter weather and the spring wet weather that we've had. They did get a little bit behind, but they're moving very, very rapidly. They're working 10 hour days during the week, and they're working on the weekends, which is kind of typical as a project roars toward its completion. But we feel we'll be in pretty good shape. The concession stands will be working, the restrooms will be working, the seats will be in, the elevators will be working, we'll be able to serve our customers. It just may be that there might not be carpeting down or might not have some trim up or some of that last minute stuff that happens in a project.
WK: You've taken a lot of seats out of Hancock Stadium, a lot are going back in with this renovation. When all of this is done, what will be the seating capacity of the stadium?
LYONS: Right now, we're just throwing out the number 13,000. That's a rough estimate. We're going to do a really good seat audit after they have all the seats installed on the east side so we have an exact number. We re-did the seating on the west side when we put the new aluminum seats in a year or so ago. We know what that number is. We'll add back our temporary bleachers that we're using in the south end, come up with a pretty good estimate of our standing room, and then we'll publish a number. But we're going to wait until we get that seat audit completed for the east side so we know that it matches what we're supposed to have.
WK: Now I think 16,000 is the smallest BCS stadium in the country. I think it's at Idaho. You're just about 3,000 short of that. President Bowman used to get a gleam in his eye when he would come here and talk about maybe someday ISU joining the BCS. Did that dream end when he left Hovey Hall?
LYONS: I don't think the dream ended. I think you need be very strategic about when you make that move, particularly in today's climate. The design for the stadium will allow us to horseshoe the south end. There's room there. The present design took that into account. But that would be something that we would need to do as we have that demand, which would certainly help us get to the larger number. The bigger issues are how are you going to fund that move up, what conference are you going to be in, and make sure it's an appropriate conference and that you can be competitive with all your sports.
WK: Shifting now to basketball, there have been some high profile defections from the men's basketball team over the last few months. Some outside the program are questioning the ability of Head Coach Dan Muller to run a successful program. What do you tell these people?
LYONS: To me, this is just a natural progression of a coaching change. Tim Jankovich was a great coach. He recruited a certain kind of player to fit his system. Dan is also a very good coach, albeit a younger coach, not quite the experience of a Tim Jankovich, but he's going to recruit the kind of player that fits his system. But I just see it as a natural progression. We're going to have to be patient with this group because the vast majority have not played a Division I basketball game. But I think the athleticism is going to be a little bit better. I think the energy is going to be a little bit higher because of the style that Dan wants to play. I'm encouraged by how things are going, and I really look forward to seeing this team gel and get them on the floor and watch them compete.
WK: Have you given any thought to when the time comes--and it will probably come eventually, at least with one particular sport, where it is time to let a coach go, to have them depart from the program--what kind of criteria goes into that decision?
LYONS: There's several criteria that go into the decision. I've been part of that in the past here. Obviously you look at competitive success. You look at academic success. You look at program management. You look at community participation. You look at a number of factors and just see is it pointing up or is it pointing down. And then you have to make a difficult decision. It's never fun to make a coaching change. It's a difficult thing. You're affecting student athletes, you're affecting somebody's families. A lot of people think it's easy to do that--it's not easy to do that. But you have to do what you think is in the best interest of Illinois State as an athletic program and Illinois State as an institution to move a program forward. Sometimes you have to make that hard decision.
WK: Illinois State University's new athletic director Larry Lyons says he's enjoyed being a do-er in his former job serving coaches and department heads. Now, he says he's looking forward to working with the coaches on a higher level of program management.
Lyons talks about incoming ISU President Tim Flanagan's views of college sports, and discusses the future of the Missouri Valley Conference and whether he sees ISU remaining.
WILLIS KERN: Your appointment came just as ISU's President Al Bowman was departing his position. What do you know about incoming President Tim Flanagan's feelings about college sports?
LARRY LYONS: Basically, we have a feeling that he's very positive about college sports. He's been at the FCS level in the past. Conversations that we've had with folks at Framingham State were very positive. He was a supporter, saw the value, understood the relationship of athletics to the university mission, so we feel pretty good about that. I've not had too many direct conversations with him about it. Didn't need to because that wasn't a major part of the process. The process was more focused on the institutional needs as opposed to just one smaller department.
WK: The Missouri Valley Conference is looking a bit different this year with the basketball power Creighton now a part of the new Big East, and Loyola now an MVC member. How much is Creighton's departure going to hurt the Valley?
LYONS: I think Creighton's departure will have an impact just because of the immediate success that they were having and the fact that they really supported the men's basketball tournament in the recent past. But that's cycled every year. Back in the '90s, Illinois State was driving that bus when Dan was a player, Dan Muller, and we were bringing the largest crowds. Southern took over in the early 2000s. Wichita and Creighton weren't really attending the tournament very well back then, now they're kind of driving the bus. As teams cycle in terms of better teams and not as competitive teams, crowds usually follow, so somebody will step in and fill the gap. We certainly hope that we're one of those teams that produces some more fans down in St. Louis.
WK: And there have been some major changes in the conference affiliations all across the country over the last couple of years. Illinois State still happy with the Valley?
LYONS: Illinois State feels that the Valley is the right place right now. There's no question about that. From a basketball perspective, that's one thing, but from the rest of our sports' perspective, we're competitive in the Valley. We're always at the top of the all-sport race, competing for that all sport championship. We feel the Missouri Valley football conference is the right place for the football team right now, and so we're pleased. Obviously you need to keep an eye on that landscape and see what opportunities might be out there, but for right now, we're in the right spot.
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